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School closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic are projected to increase learning poverty by 72 million children in low- to middle-income nations, according to a World Bank report published Dec. 2.

This would represent a 10% increase from 2019, resulting in learning poverty rates of 63% of children in these nations. World Bank fears as many as 10 million students might not return to any education program after the pandemic.

Learning poverty is “the fraction of 10-year-olds in low- and middle-income countries who cannot read and understand an age-appropriate text.”

Consequences of increased learning poverty include mental health challenges due to lack of community and socialization, as well as reduced access to nutritious food, water, sanitation and consistent childcare to enable parents to work.

Longer-term economic consequences could involve a loss of $1 trillion in lifelong earnings by the impacted children and youth.

At one point, 94% of in-person educational programs globally were shut down due to the pandemic. While many shifted to virtual classrooms, this presented additional challenges for educators and students in low- to middle-income nations.

Digital disparities became more visible, as millions of children struggled with remote learning opportunities due to lack of internet access and other technologies necessary to facilitate effective virtual learning.

Three-quarters of all students who are unable to participate in remote learning live in rural and/or impoverished areas. “Only three of 54 low-income countries or those affected most by fragility, conflict and violence have an internet penetration rate of more than 50 percent,” the report said.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where pre-pandemic learning poverty rates were 87%, a majority (55%) of all children had no access to education when in-person schools were closed.

The cumulative negative impacts of COVID-19 could mean that 63 out of every 100 children in low- to middle-income nations become learning impoverished, a 10-child increase from a year ago, with the highest increases seen in marginalized groups.

“Effective action today to mitigate large and mounting learning losses, recover and rebuild stronger is needed more urgently than ever to accelerate the acquisition of foundational skills and, increasingly, 21st-century skills for every child,” said Jaime Saavedra, World Bank global director for education, in a press release accompanying the report. “There is a window of opportunity to build on the lessons of the pandemic and to build back a system that is equitable, … that is effective, … and that is resilient.”

The full report is available here.

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